Carlos Celdran, un caballero para las Filipinas

What most Filipinos fail to appreciate about the acts that got Carlos P. Celdran convicted as a criminal and sentenced to serve for up to a year in the horrific Manila City Jail, was that he did what he did for us women. He was our knight in a black bowler and frock coat, fighting for our right to reproductive health services in the most contentious times. We have lost a champion.

There is a bitter poignancy about Celdran’s dying the week after the 85th PEN International Congress was held in Manila. Members of PEN, one of the oldest and largest writers’ and publishers’ civil society organizations, pledge “to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which they belong, as well as throughout the world wherever this is possible…” The PEN International charter further states its members must “believe that the necessary advance of the world towards a more highly organized political and economic order renders a free criticism of governments, administrations and institutions (such as the Church) imperative” (emphasis supplied).


After Celdran’s conviction in the trial court for the archaic crime (Art. 133-Revised Penal Code) of “performing an act notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful,” I asked the Philippine Center of PEN International to come out with a resolution during our 2014 national conference, expressing support for Celdran and condemning the assault upon and curtailment of his right to free speech. I was turned down. No reason given.

I persisted with greater urgency in 2018, when Celdran’s conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court. It was pointed out that Celdran was not even a PEN member, so I got him to apply to join our center. But the powers-that-be of Philippine PEN declared that although he was an internationally acclaimed playwright (“Livin’ La Vida Imelda”) and performance artist (“If These Walls Could Talk,” his iconic tour of Intramuros), Carlos Celdran was not a writer.


Other PEN board members disingenuously reasoned that Celdran’s freedom of expression was not violated, since he expressed himself when he carried the sign proclaiming “DAMASO”—even if the absurd consequence was a harsh and cruelly disproportionate year-long prison sentence. Some claimed that Celdran had received due process since his case reached the Supreme Court. There were even those who suggested I lobby to amend that ridiculous law. Yeah, right.

Feeling gaslighted, I asked the opinion of former senator Rene Saguisag, a human rights advocate and constitutionalist. He replied to me on Sept. 30, 2018, or about a year before Celdran’s passing: “As a libertarian human rights advocate, I side with you. Free speech is sacred, not only for talk that we agree with, but more so, for that which we may despise. We have been warned that the compulsory unification of opinion only leads to the unanimity of the graveyard.”

Celdran had agreed I might present his case to the PEN International Writers at Risk or in Exile project officer, who was in Manila last week. He was also preparing to apply for a residency with the International Cities of Refuge Network, which works closely with PEN International. Last Oct. 3, he wrote me: “I am incredibly grateful for this. No matter what the outcome. Abrazos fuertes desde Madrid.”

Carmen Aquino Sarmiento is an award-winning writer and social concerns advocate who is a former board member of the Philippine Center of PEN International.

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